RIVERSIDE – Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said today a rash of criminal cases recently dismissed by Superior Court judges “constitutes a danger to the public”case dismissals that threatens to intensify, leading to a potential breakdown in the local justice system if the trend is allowed to continue.
“Unless the courts stop these dismissals, the backlog of criminal cases will grow, and our justice system will be in danger of collapse,”
Hestrin said in a video message released by the D.A.’s Office. “This is no time to be focusing on anything but the crisis at hand. The courts are required to use all available resources to ensure all cases and disputes are tried in a court of law in a timely manner.”
Hestrin first sounded the alarm earlier this week, announcing that in the previous week more than 200 felony and misdemeanor cases, the majority of
them domestic violence matters, had been abruptly booted by judges countywide.
“When a judge dismisses a domestic violence case, they also terminate the victim’s criminal protective order. This is nothing less than an injustice and a disservice to the victims and to public safety,” Hestrin said.
D.A.’s office representatives also said that assault and robbery cases had been dismissed.
A backlog of nearly 2,800 criminal cases ballooned during the “COVID-19 forced lockdowns” that were announced in March 2020, according to Hestrin.
The Office of the Chief Justice of California issued a series of emergency orders that paved the way to court proceedings being halted for months on end. Dockets swelled as multiple courthouses in Riverside County were shut down for most of 2020 and others were made available to the public for only limited hours each week.
Between early spring and late summer 2020, jury trials were suspended, unless they had already begun.
Superior Court Presiding Judge John Monterosso released a statement Tuesday acknowledging the court system was bearing a heavy load, traced to the lockdowns and consequent changes in court operations.
“I share others’ frustration when a case is not resolved on the merits, or due process is impaired, due to a lack of available judicial resources,” Monterosso said. “The genesis of the current set of circumstances is the chronic and generational lack of judges allocated to serve Riverside County.”
He stressed that the county has 90 authorized and funded judicial positions, but a 2020 Judicial Needs Assessment Study noted that 115 judicial
officers are needed to ensure efficient operations throughout the local court system and prevent logjams.
“The dispensing of statutory timelines for criminal trials under the emergency orders delayed the ‘day in court’ for numerous criminal defendants
and those impacted by the alleged crimes,” Monterosso said. “While the law allows a court to continue a case beyond the statutory deadline for ‘good cause,’ the decision on whether ‘good cause’ exists is an individualized decision made by the trial judge based on the law and the facts of the case.”
Hestrin sympathized with the fact “we have far fewer … judicial seats than we need based on population.”
“But this has been the case as far back as anyone can remember,” he said. “Before the pandemic, we had not had a criminal case dismissed for lack of a courtroom in over a decade.”
He said defendants whose cases have been repeatedly delayed are watching the current drama unfold and “have no incentive to resolve any matter
before trial” as long as there’s a possibility that holding out will ultimately lead to a dismissal.
“This situation is unsustainable and constitutes a danger to the public,” Hestrin said. “We’re not asking for a specific outcome. We’re asking judges to engage with the facts of the cases and backlog.”
Monterosso countered that judges are redoubling efforts to accommodate trial requests, often times summoning prospective jurors for screening late on weekdays to courtrooms where juries in other matters are still deliberating.
However, Hestrin said at the time of the mass dismissals, 500 prospective jurors who were prepared to be assigned courtrooms were sent home, with judges refusing to entertain requests for “brief” postponements until courtrooms became available.
“(This) seems like mismanagement of resources,” the D.A. said.
“It’s simply unacceptable. If we have an emergency in our courts that justifies a dismissal of a felony, then is should be an emergency in every courtroom across the county and should justify an all-hands-on-deck approach to trying cases. My prosecutors stand ready to prosecute anytime.”
He recommended “longer hours” each weekday, the start-up of night courts and even weekend court hours to plow through the backlog. It was unknown
what costs in overtime and other budget pressures those actions might precipitate.
All of the COVID-linked emergency orders affecting the county’s courts expired on Oct. 7.
The current backlog is reminiscent of the cumulative impact of a buildup of unresolved criminal cases in 2007 that prompted the state to dispatch a “judicial strike team” to the county to help sort through criminal cases clogging the court system.
At the time, the Superior Court virtually halted civil jury trials for months while judges focused on reducing the strain on resources. An empty elementary school was even converted into a makeshift courthouse.
The backlog at that time was about half of what it is now.
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